Whether you’re trying to get stronger, recovering from nagging injuries, or just want enormous muscles because you think they look cool, one of the most awesome yet challenging parts of building serious muscle is figuring out how much you need to eat.
Building muscle tissue requires a surplus of calories paired with heavy lifting over a long period of time. But even if you’ve done your homework and created a nutrition plan that makes sense for your goals, toss in a hefty amount of meal prep and the price tag of most healthy foods, and the results can be paralyzing. As a personal trainer, I’ve seen firsthand that most people end up not eating enough to see real changes in the gym.
Unless you have a friends-and-family discount at Whole Foods, it’s hard out there for folks trying to get strong without blowing a ton of money on groceries—so how do you fuel yourself to get super swole without breaking the bank?
1. Learn to love your kitchen.
After a long day, sometimes all we have the energy for is plopping on the couch and scrolling through Seamless or Grubhub—but lukewarm pad Thai isn’t going to get you to those gain goals, so it’s time to channel your inner Gordon Ramsay and fall in love with your kitchen.
First, you’ll want to make sure you have some quality essentials, like a non-stick grill pan, a slow cooker and food storage containers. Investing in the right tools will ensure that they last longer and can make meal prepping a way more enjoyable experience overall. Then take a look at the week of training ahead and make a grocery list based on the kind of meals you want to support your workouts. If a magnetic dry erase board on your fridge feels like a fun way to map out your weekly eats, do it to it!
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2. Practice frugal shopping.
A lot of large grocery chains offer frequent shopper rewards, so do some research and seek out stores that have them. Try giving yourself a limit of 50 bucks and see if you can buy your weekly groceries without going over. Clip those coupons, embrace your inner bargain hunter, and make a game out of sticking to your list (don’t even think about going shopping without your list!). Most importantly, never ever ever go to the store hungry—you’ll probably leave with a $14 cheese and some bougie organic stone-ground crackers.
3. Prioritize affordable protein.
Protein is definitely the crown jewel of your grocery list—it preserves muscle mass and stimulates the growth of new tissue in the form of amino acids, and you’re going to need a lot of it to build muscle and maintain steady energy and blood sugar levels.
Think about what sort of protein you’d like to eat that week (chicken? Beef? Tofu?) and calculate how many meals you need a day based on your goals. If you’re a carnivore, chicken thighs are more affordable (and more flavorful in my opinion!) than chicken breasts, and both beef top round roast and pork shoulder are on the cheaper side and awesome for slow cooking. A carton of whole eggs is always cheaper than the pre-separated whites, and you can trim your costs on beans by buying them dried and in bulk.
Most meatless alternatives can get pretty pricey, so vegetarians and vegans who aren’t trying to survive exclusively on lentils have it a little tougher when it comes to protein. Checking out places like Trader Joe’s or Costco for items like veggie burgers and tofu is your best bet.
As for prep, I’m a huge fan of batch-cooking my protein. It’s super easy to dump chicken thighs and salsa in a crockpot on low for a couple hours or grill a big batch of salmon or steak with some seasoning. Once your protein is cooked, you can weigh it and put it in food storage containers or plastic baggies. Yeah, this is the most time-consuming part of your prep, but it’s absolutely worth the time and attention—once it’s done, it’s done!
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4. Eat your veggies!
I throw a handful of spinach or cooked greens into most of my meals for added vitamins, fiber, and energy. Any green, leafy vegetable will do: kale, collards, Swiss chard, whatever floats your boat. Fibrous veggies like sweet potatoes are dirt cheap, packed with vitamins, and super-versatile to cook with.
Keep an eye out for what’s in season and buy the whole and unbagged bunches of veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots instead of their prepackaged counterparts. Sure, you’ll have to rinse and chop, but it’ll help keep overall costs down considerably.
5. Fats are your friends.
Healthy fats are essential for overall health and gaining mass, and olive oil, whole nuts, and nut butter are all excellent sources. Butters and oils tend to be pricey, so look out for deals (I buy Trader Joe’s EVOO) and try to scoop your whole nuts from the bulk food section. If you tolerate dairy, whole milk is a relatively cheap and easy way to add extra fat and calories as well.
6. Carbs = energy.
Carbohydrates are awesome. Complex carbs like pasta, rice, potatoes, and oats are all cheap, delicious options. You can cook large batches of rice or pasta and store them to toss in meals later. Try to consume most of your carbs around your training time so they help you fuel and recover from training more efficiently.
7. Assemble and keep it simple.
Organize your fridge in sections (I like my protein on the bottom shelf, veggies in the middle, and dairy on the side or top) so that everything is easily accessible when you’re hangry. I prefer to meal-prep on Sunday and Wednesday, but figure out a schedule that works best for you.
When you’re just starting out, keep everything as simple and streamlined as possible. Pick a cooked protein, a handful of veggies, a serving of healthy fats, and an energy-appropriate serving of carbs. Don’t forget to add seasoning spices, mustard, yogurt sauce, or hot sauce for some flavor—once you get in the habit of prepping, you can experiment with different flavors and get creative.
8. Progress, not perfection!
One of the best things about training to gain muscle is that you can have some higher-calorie meals sprinkled into the week—just make sure your choices support your goals and your budget. You’ll probably perform, digest, and recover better if you’re eating your prepped food on a regular basis, but if you want to occasionally hit up the taco truck after a heavy squat session, it definitely won’t hurt you.
Don’t stress about doing the “perfect meal-prep” and filling your fridge with aesthetically pleasing, perfectly stacked containers of food. If you’re able to eat prepped food most of the time, you are well ahead of the game.
And if you find yourself unable to afford all the food you need, examine your overall budget and see where you can tighten things up. Coffee, alcohol, buying clothes and gadgets—all of this stuff adds up. Eating for gains on a tight budget doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive, it just requires a little planning ahead and creativity. Lift heavy, eat big, and let’s all get strong as hell together!
Saysha Heinzman is an 84kg powerlifter, USAPL Certified Club Coach, and strength/hypertrophy specialist. She has been teaching people how to get stronger for more than 13 years. She offers private technique instruction, online training, and seminars. She lives and trains in Brooklyn, NY.